This will make you want to vomit – but read it anyway. Know your red shields.
I interrupt Lord Rothschild in the middle of a decision. It’s not about finance or philanthropy, though these are subjects that occupy other parts of his mind. A friend has offered him the loan of two 8ft-tall columns of green semi-precious stone and he is wondering where they would show to best effect. We could only be at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, where people have been worrying about such arcane and delicious matters since it was begun by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1874.
Waddesdon has been in the news recently for an unwelcome reason: HS2, the high-speed rail network, is planned to come slicing through the Vale of Aylesbury about two miles from its front door. Two miles is not far in the case of an estate the size of Waddesdon. It will also make a “great noise”, shattering the tranquillity of a place whose special magic attracts 350,000 visitors a year.
“I have particular feelings as a neighbour to the railway,” says Lord Rothschild with polished understatement. “But more generally, the economic case has not been well made. You hear different opinions. Infrastructure ought to be integrated in the UK.” If a new airport were to be built east of London, for example, Britain’s rail needs would change radically. “We’re talking about very large sums of money and the impact on some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain, which are very big things.”
From Lord Rothschild, that comment is something; he is used to dealing with big things. One of them is Waddesdon. Built in the style of a French chateau, it was not intended to shelter a spreading family, since Baron Ferdinand’s wife and baby both died during the birth, nor to entertain great Victorian shooting parties; the place was conceived as a showcase for the collections, acquiring which provided the mainspring of Baron Ferdinand’s life. They are fabulous, opulent, well-chosen, gilded – a cardinal statement of a taste so associated with this one international family, which had 40 great houses across Europe in the 19th century, that it simply went by the name of “the Rothschild taste”.
Luxurious French furniture was combined with the best British 18th-century portraits. Here is the playwright Beaumarchais’s de luxe writing desk. There, a jewel-encrusted miniature of James I. Every marble surface supports a pair of Sèvres parrots or an agate vase. Even the collection of 18th-century buttons is memorable.